Childhood anxiety expert and author, Stacey Turner, shares some advice on coping with the distressing issue of childhood separation anxiety in your family…
Separation anxiety – or any anxiety your child may suffer from – is awful for everyone in the family. It consumes the happiest of parents and turns them into green-eyed monsters. Why? Well, it’s not just difficult dealing with the separation issues at hand, it’s also hard watching your partner struggle with even the most basic day-to-day tasks, as she tries to cope with a distressed and clingy child.
She may be questioning her abilities as a parent, where she went wrong and generally beating herself up about a stressful, seemingly all-consuming situation of separation anxiety. You could start feeling disconnected, as you potentially can’t spend any quality time with her while she is dealing with her child feeling so distressed: it can be heartbreaking. And just maybe, you might feel a little put out, as that demanding child is consuming so much of her time. Let me assure you, if your partner could have it differently, she would, but she wants and needs your support right now and it will get better.
What is separation anxiety?
I can assure you, it’s not naughty behaviour! Anxiety is an emotion. Anxious thoughts creep in making the child think that something bad might happen and these thoughts – and feelings – take over. Your child’s body reacts to these anxious thoughts in a fight or flight way. While every child and family are different, the basic patterns of anxious thinking, physical and behavioural symptoms appear in a similar way.
Separation anxiety is anxiety provoked in a young child by separation or the threat of separation from the child’s mother or main carer. Separation anxiety is often a normal stage of childhood development from approximately eight months (sometimes younger, as was our case with our daughter) to five years, sometimes older. It can reappear at times of change and stress.
Separation anxiety can include difficulty in sleeping in their own bedroom, as the child does not want to be on their own and separated. They seek great comfort in being close to parent/carer. The frustration here is it can appear out of nowhere even after your baby/toddler slept blissfully in their own room! It is typically when your child starts realising that they’re their own person and that they are missing you.
Sadly, if it’s not recognised and the right support is not put in place, panic and distress continues and can manifest. The reason for this is that the child doesn’t learn that it’s OK to feel the way they do or how to manage it. There is no magic wand, but we can guide our children, help them to feel better and show them it’s not so scary.
We can help children reframe thinking and form healthy attachments forming good quality and healthy independence.
Here’s what you can do:
1. Grab your partner and hug her
If your loved one is pushing you away, she doesn’t mean to and there’s a chance she doesn’t even know she’s doing it! Instead of retreating, step forward and acknowledge the situation. Grab her, hug her and reassure her that you can see this is tough right now, but you will get through this together.
2. Offer all the support possible
Along with that strong hug, reassure her it is your responsibility too, and that you will offer as much support as you can. Remind her regularly that she’s doing amazingly well, but it’s also your job, so she doesn’t need to feel alone and together, you can do this.
3. Encourage her to seek help
Many children need support along the way to help transition through different stages of development. Separation anxiety is common, in fact so common, that I believe it will soon be seen as the norm. Encourage your partner to seek help and confirm again that you will be right there beside her, starting with her GP who can refer to a catalogue of people and organisations. You can also seek help privately through therapists and counsellors, nutritionists and via the education network in your area.
The most positive action you can take here is to reassure her that it’s OK to feel the way she does and it’s OK to seek help. Once the right help is sought, you’re both in a better place to deal with your child’s anxiety.
4. Investigate working from home
Consider working from home as and when possible to be around a bit more to offer that support. It might mean some extra work at night, but introducing some flexibility so you can be on hand will make a huge difference.
5. Do your research
With the world at your fingertips, do your own research so you can understand separation anxiety in greater detail and what is needed for your family to positively move forward. By doing this, you will realise how common it is and hopefully learn helpful tips to introduce.
6. Create a tranquil space
Forget wine and chocolates… think about how to inject more tranquillity into your lives with small changes! Do you have an area in the house or even in the garden you could work on to create a tranquil space to promote calm? Think about what your partner might appreciate in a space for her to retreat to from time to time… a lovely chair with cushions and a blanket, fairy lights and maybe a little side table for the wine and chocolates (I was joking about forgetting wine and chocolates – of course that’s never advisable!).
This little area is not just about providing a cosy spot, it’s about reminding your partner that she is still her and it’s important to release the stress of the situation and find a way to bring in some balance and perspective.
7. Make sure she’s eating properly
Often, stress suppresses appetite or her diet can be nutritionally depleted due to a lack of time and energy to consider her nutritional needs, shop and cook. What might be helpful is to spend time preparing food to be reheated, making it an easy option offering comfort.
8. Remember, it gets better!
Ahhhh, you can breathe a sigh of relief because it does get better! With your support, the situation can be bearable and while it may take time, reminding your partner (and you) that it’s OK and that she’s not alone will put you on the right road.
Stacey Turner is a childhood anxiety expert, teacher, parent and author of the My Tiny Book Series, including I’m Going To Nursery, £9.99, available from all good bookshops and online at mytinybook.com